Expat Essentials

Expat Essentials: Dispatches’ list of the best countries in Europe for university

(Editor’s note: Check out our other posts here about going to university in Europe.)

At Dispatches Europe, our raison d’etre is the global mobility of talent. Sometimes, we tend to get fixated on multinational corporations pursuing highly educated internationals.

But as the United States grows increasingly insular under President Trump, English-speaking international talent might start looking elsewhere for options to optimize future earning power while minimizing their initial investment even before they join the workforce.

In the the U.S., a college education is increasingly an option only for the upper-middle-class and wealthy. Tuitions at many state universities in the U.S. are rising quickly as state funding decreases.

This is the time of year when high school students in the U.S. are finalizing their college searches … and coming to the realization they’re about to go wildly into debt.

The average in-state tuition is about $9,700, or roughly $40,000 for a 4-year undergraduate degree.

The average out-of-state tuition at a four-year college is about $25,000 per year. So, $100,000 to get through an undergraduate degree.

And Quartz just reported there are now 40 American universities that charge $250,000 for a four-year degree.

Let’s compare to Oxford University outside London, consistently ranked by Times Higher Education as the best in the world, where tuition is 9,250 pounds, or about $11,000.

Roughly the same as if you went to my daughter Lucy’s U.S. college, Eastern Kentucky University, where tuition is about $9,000 per year. Which is considered a bargain school with pretty fair academics.

But it ain’t no Oxford.

Policymakers aren’t stupid. Just in the past few years, European countries such as France and the Netherlands have gone all in on recruiting English-speaking foreign students as part of their strategy for winning the global war for talent.

Along with Americans, they’re targeting Indian and Chinese students who are increasingly less welcome in the U.S. and UK. This is also a “soft-power” gambit for countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, and France … a way to extend global political influence by shaping the world views of young foreigners.

Our personal experience includes only France, Netherlands and Germany.

We can tell you this: Highly selective American universities such as the Ivys, CalTech, MIT and Stanford still offer the world’s best education to the world’s smartest people.

But on the next lower tier, European universities are more demanding than state schools in the U.S. Professors and teachers in the U.S. tend to be pretty student-oriented, and go out of their way to give kids a fighting chance of succeeding.

In Europe, professors couldn’t care less. The course loads are much more demanding, with far more material than comparable U.S. schools. Students are supposed to have command of all if it, and there is generally only one final test that decides their grade.

The point of education here is to actually prepare people for careers, not justify spending millions on sports teams. So, if you’re not good at working hard in teams and collaborating, Europe is not for you. If you’re ambitious and have an international world view, this is the place.

Let’s look at the countries that are most practical for English-speaking students outside the European Union.


Higher education in Denmark is free for students from the EU and Switzerland, and for all students in exchange programs.

If you’re an expat student from, say, the U.S., tuition ranges from 6,000 euros to 16,000 euros per year. So, for Americans at least, Denmark is a (relative) bargain even compared to state schools such as the University of Michigan, where tuition is $25,000 for out-of-staters.

Of course, you have to prove you’re qualified and that includes fluency in English. If you are, an international student in Denmark can choose between more than 700 degree programs and 1,300 courses taught entirely in English, according to the Study in Denmark portal.

So, how good are universities in Denmark? Not bad … not great.

Aarhus University is the top-ranked school on Higher Education Times’ list at No. 98, and the University of Copenhagen is No. 120

You can get more information here about options at the Study in Denmark website.


France has always been open to foreign students, and the data we’ve found indicate there are between 300,000 and 400,000 foreign students enrolled there.

France technically charges tuition to undergraduate students, but the fees are less than the amount (5,000 euros) we had to put up to cover our daughter’s expenses at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

Students studying for their Bachelor’s degree pay about 200 euros or about $212 annually. Not bad, huh?

How difficult is it to enroll? For Americans, not that difficult.

First and most important, you don’t have to be fluent in French. (Though of all European languages, it’s the easiest to learn.)

The Campus France recruitment portal has a catalog of 1,200 postsecondary programs taught in English and designed for English-speaking students.

From the website:

France is the first non-English speaking country for recruiting foreign students and provides a wide offer of trainings taught in English. It is thus no longer needed to be fluent in French to study in France. Studies to obtain a degree are completed by French classes, an additional asset in an international career since it paves the way to 75 French-speaking countries.

In promotional materials, French officials push quality of life.

Compared to the rest of Europe, French universities don’t place that well in the objective rankings. You have to go to No. 66 to find at a French school, École Normale Supérieure on the Times Higher Education list.

No, 116 École Polytechnique is the university the French refer to as their Harvard/MIT, and it produces most of the top French business leaders.

Still, it’s a big world, and a ranking in the Top 200 universities is nothing to sneeze at.

You can get almost all the visa info and application information you need here at  the Campus France portal.


Before we moved to the Netherlands, we researched the University of Freiburg, one of the oldest institutions in Europe. Freiburg tuition is 250 euros per year compared to the $8,150 per year in tuition alone Lucy paid at EKU, less her scholarships.

But there are a lot of hurdles to clear.

From our first post on school in Germany:

• If your child has an International Baccalaureate diploma from an American school, you’re in!

• If an American student comes out of high school with 5s on their Advanced Placement class exams – the top score – German schools waive the prep requirements.

• If those don’t apply, German registrars look at the same stuff American colleges look at including a student’s high school diploma and cumulative grade point average. You have to send German university schools an officially certified copy of your higher education entrance qualification. If they determine the diploma is the equivalent of a German diploma, you can apply for a full degree program. If your high school diploma isn’t equivalent, you must take the 1-year at Studienkolleg in Heidelberg, then pass an exam.

• To avoid taking a 1-year prep course in Germany, non-EU college students must have one year of academic study and at least five general education classes such as science and mathematics. Three of the five classes have to be progressive. That is, you need Algebra 101 and Algebra 102 or Chemistry 201 and Chemistry 202.

German universities are demanding because they’re tough … probably No. 2 in Europe behind Switzerland.

Many rank highly on the Times Higher Education global rankings including:

• No. 30 LMU Munich

• No. 43 Heidelberg University

• No. 46 Technical University of Munich

• No. 57 Humboldt University of Berlin

• No. 75 Free University of Berlin

• No. 78 RWTH Aachen University

Times Higher Education just ran an interesting post, “Why Germany educates international students for free,” explaining why the number of foreign students has risen in Germany about 30 percent since 2012.

The author, David Matthews, concludes that German policymakers see this as a way to fix demographic problems, with Germany second only to Japan in terms of the proportion of its population over 60, according to the United Nations,

About half of the foreign students plan to remain in Germany after graduation, according to a survey conducted by the German Academic Exchange Service, with three in 10 planning to stay permanently.

In 2016, German universities enjoyed another big rise in international students, according to the latest data. Germany recorded close to a 7 percent increase in international students coming to the country.

Country Number %
China 32,268 12.8
India 13,537 5.4
Russia 11,413 4.5
Austria 10,129 4
Italy 8,047 3.2

Number of international students in German universities, by country, and as proportion of total international students, 2016

The German Academic Exchange Services has  a ton of info here that can help you start the process of studying in Deutschland.


The Netherlands is another great option even though education here is not free for non-EU citizens.

Our daughter Lucy is in her first year at Tilburg University, where tuition is 8,300 euros per year for non-EU students. A studio apartment in the new university housing complex would be about 5,500 euros per year. Pricey by EU standards, to be sure.

BUT, for a small country, the Netherlands has a shockingly high number of highly ranked universities. And we’re not saying that because Dispatches is based here.

Times Higher Education ranks seven Dutch universities in their Top 100 globally:

• No. 59 Delft University of Technology

• No. 63 University of Amsterdam

• No. 65 Wageningen University & Research

• No. 69 Erasmus University Rotterdam

• No. 77 Leiden University

• No. 86 Utrecht University

• No. 94 Maastricht University

You can start the process here at the Study in Holland portal. Or you can do as we did and apply directly to the university that best fits your needs.


Sweden is not among the free-tuition countries, but it has some outstanding universities for a reasonable cost compared to the U.S. AND, Sweden offers two scholarship programs for foreign students: One for 12 developing countries, and another for everyone else.

EU students pay fees equal to about 30 euros per semester.

For non-EU students, tuition starts about about 10,000 euros for humanities/law/social science courses and about 15,000 euros for science courses.

Karolinska Institute is Sweden’s top-ranked at No. 23 on the Times Higher Education global ranks.

Uppsala University is No. 93 and Lund University is No. 96.

The Study in Sweden portal is really pretty good.


Switzerland is an expensive place to live, and universities aren’t free. Though they’re still a better deal than the U.S.

Also, English-language courses tend to be at the master’s degree level. Most undergrad classes are in German, Italian or French … though the number of courses available at an undergraduate level in English is increasing at universities of applied sciences.

We’re including Switzerland as an option only because it has among the best schools in Europe excluding the United Kingdom, which with Brexit is moving toward making life more difficult for foreign students.

Swiss universities are all public, and the tuition/fees are low – between 1,000 Swiss francs and 2,500 Swiss francs … which are the same in U.S. dollars, with the franc and dollar at parity.

But it’s the cost of living that’ll kill you …

The real cost is closer to $30,000 per year. The thing is, the cost is worth it to students in technical fields because ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich is highly ranked by all objective lists of universities.

Times Higher Education ranks ETH Zurich at No. 9 in the world, just ahead of the University of California, Berkeley. Not far behind at No. 30 is École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

Compared to France and Germany, the Swiss education portal is not great, but here it is.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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